A Critical Evaluation of Charles De Gaulle's Handling of the Algerian Insurrection

A Critical Evaluation of Charles De Gaulle's Handling of the Algerian Insurrection

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A Critical Evaluation of Charles De Gaulle's Handling of the Algerian Insurrection

The 1950s was not a particularly good decade for France. The Fourth Republic, which had been established in the aftermath of the Second World War, remained unstable and lurched from crisis to crisis. Between 1946 and 1954, there had been a war in French Indo-China, between a nationalist force under Ho Chi Minh and the French. The war was long and bitter and towards the end, the French suffered the ignominy of losing the major fortress of Dien Bien Phu to the guerrillas on 7 May 1954. An armistice was sought with Ho Chi Minh, and the nations of North and South Vietnam emerged from the ashes of the colony. It is entirely likely that the success of the guerrillas influenced the Algerian insurrectionists, the National Liberation Front(FLN), in tactics and in the idea that the time was ripe to strike. It is clear that the FLN employed similar methods to those developed by the nationalists under Ho Chi Minh.1

For several months, France was at peace. The insurrection began on 1 November 1954. The insurrection precipitated the fall of the Fourth Republic. Charles de Gaulle, hero of the Second World War, became President of France in 1958, and was intent on securing a political solution to the insurrection, rather than one based on force. His efforts were largely successful in avoiding a civil war in France, and ending the insurgency - although it took four years to do so. It has been estimated that more than a million Algerians died in the insurrection.2

Before 1954, Algeria was not considered to be a French colony - rather it was seen as an integral part of France. The region was composed of departments, like those of the mainland. There were over a million white French nationals living in Algeria at the time and around eight million Muslims.3 This was a greater proportion of French nationals than in the other major North African colonies of France - Morocco, and Tunisia.4 Although there were benefits to remaining with France, the colonial administration was heavily weighed against the Muslims - particularly with regards to voting rights. In 1936, for instance, the Popular Front Government of Blum introduced legislation to the Assembly proposing to extend French citizenship to over twenty thousand Algerian Muslims.5 The initiative failed when all the European mayors of Algerian towns resigned in protest.

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After the First World War, a number of Algerian political parties with nationalist interests began to emerge, one of the first being the Algerian Communist Party (an adjunct to the French Communist Party) in the 1920s.6 A number of other parties were formed and, much later, some coalesced into the Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action (CRUA) in March 1954. This organisation was backed by President Nasser of Egypt and other countries of the Middle East.7 The leaders of the CRUA met in Switzerland on 10 October 1954, they created the FLN, and planned the rebellion to begin on 1 November.
The insurrection had continued for three and a half years before the end of the Fourth Republic. Between the start of the crisis and May 1958 (the fall of the Republic), there had been six different French governments.8 France had been at war more-or-less continuously since 1939. French public opinion was shifting, especially after the humiliating back-down from the attack on Egypt (which supported the Algerian FLN) in the Suez Crisis of 1956. There had also been revelations, despite censorship, that the French military was employing torture in the war.9 Concerns were growing about whether the military was fully under the control of the civilian government. Such concerns were exacerbated by the Faure Conspiracy. The conspiracy was discovered in January 1957, when the second in command of Algiers, General Faure, was discovered to be in contact with extremist European elements. He was sentenced to thirty days in confinement. It was believed there was a plot to kidnap Lacoste, the Resident Minister, and install a military government in Algeria.10

A rebellion was finally attempted on 13 May 1958 in Algiers. The Gaullists took control of the situation after hours of confusion. A Committee for Public Safety was established under General Massu. Shortly before midnight, Massu made a statement: "We appeal to General de Gaulle, the only man who is capable of heading a Government of Public Safety, above all the parties, in order to ensure the perpetuation of French Algeria as an integral part of France."11 After much political wrangling, de Gaulle (who distanced himself from the acts of the rebels in Algiers) was legitimately invested as President by the National Assembly on 1 June. It was now his responsibility to end the Algerian crisis.

Leaving Algeria would be easier said than done. De Gaulle needed to weigh up his options and proceed with a plan that would result in the least possible amount of bloodshed. There was also the ever present risk of a coup against the Fifth Republic from right wing officers in the army. Additionally, there were threats to de Gaulle's own personal safety, with a nearly successful attempt on his life in August 1962 - well after the resolution of the crisis.12 The same forces that desired de Gaulle's death may have, if given the opportunity, precipitated a civil war - another risk that de Gaulle had to avoid.

De Gaulle had demanded and received constitution making powers from the National Assembly. The new constitution which he presented to the country implicitly eliminated the principle of French Union that was in the 1946 constitution. Colonialism was now becoming an expensive and time-consuming proposition. The colonies of Indo-China, Tunisia and Morocco had already obtained their independence by the time de Gaulle ascended to power. Article 86 of de Gaulle's proposed constitution said that any overseas territory could have its independence, provided that the territory's legislative assembly had a vote to that effect confirmed by the population in a referendum.13 The overseas territories of France as well as Metropolitan France voted on whether to adopt the new constitution in September 1958. It was understood that any overseas territory voting 'No' would automatically be deemed to have opted for independence. The vote of 28 September resulted in the endorsement of 79 percent of the voters.14 A 'No' vote in Algeria would not have resulted in independence for Algeria, however, because of the 'special status' of the country (that is, that it was considered to be part of Metropolitan France). The significant aspect of Article 86 was that France recognised the right of colonies to self-determination. There were several reasons for the adoption of this policy. By 1958, colonies had outlived their usefulness and were beginning to become a burden for France.15 There were also the altruistic liberal ideals of allowing nations to govern themselves. A final reason was that at the core of French foreign policy at that time was a degree of anti-American imperialism. The stance that was adopted via Article 86 would allow France to pose as a champion of national independence.16

Constitutional reform was one thing, but from the beginning of his presidency, de Gaulle's main concern was the resolution of the war in Algeria. The problem for de Gaulle was that the army did not desire to suffer another humiliating retreat as there was from Indo-China a few years before, the settlers were determined to retain their rank and privilege, and the FLN wanted to continue the war together with its supporters.17
The immediate option de Gaulle favoured was some vague association between Algeria and France. He attempted a policy of constructive engagement with the Algerian people. On 3 October 1958, five days after the constitutional referendum, de Gaulle announced an economic aid package for the development of Algeria amounting to approximately US$200 million per year.18 The intent was to drive France and Algeria closer together, thereby abrogating nationalist tendencies. This approach should be contrasted with the view that de Gaulle expressed while discussing Algerians in February 1958, well before he became President: "They are not Provincials or Languedocians. They are Arabs and will never be integrated."19 The idea of association was, however, flawed - its goal was to influence future generations of Algerians, yet it would do nothing to change the views of the FLN in the short term, and the insurrection would continue.

Despite the obvious flaws of the integrationist approach, de Gaulle went ahead with reforms in Algeria. The constitution provided a single, unified electorate of voters in Algeria, with suffrage for Muslim women. Most of the deputies elected in the 30 November elections favoured a French Algeria.20 This reflected the integrationist image of de Gaulle's government.

While de Gaulle sought to engage the Algerian population, he continued the war against the military branch of the FLN, the Army of National Liberation (ALN). In 1959, what became known as the Challe Plan was carried out. There was a purge of over 1500 French officers who were transferred or retired.21 General Maurice Challe, a member of the air force, was appointed Supreme Commander-in-Chief of French Forces in Algeria. Challe placed an emphasis on securing the borders with Tunisia and Morocco - the entrances of the ALN into Algeria. He then mounted an operation between February and April in the Ouarsenis and Frenda mountain ranges to clear the area of insurgents. 1600 insurgents were killed, 460 were captured, ammunition and other supplies were seized and the operation succeeded in clearing the area of the ALN.22 Similar operations throughout Algeria were equally successful, yet the Challe Plan was a political failure - over a million Muslims were transferred to concentration camps and torture was used against the families of the guerrillas.23 News of these human-rights abuses reached the wider world and were milked by the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA), resident in Tunis. Global opinion turned against the French. As a result of the operations, de Gaulle announced a forty percent drop in incidents by the end of the year.24
On 16 September 1959, de Gaulle explicitly laid out the three options for Algeria in a broadcast. The first option was total independence, the second was total integration, and the third was association, "government of Algerians by Algerians, supported by French aid in close union with France."25 It would be for the Algerians themselves to decide. This statement alienated most of the French officers in Algeria. It was obvious from the broadcast that de Gaulle favoured the third option - one that was unacceptable to the army and to the settlers. Some of the white settlers formed a paramilitary organisation, the French National Front (FNF). General Massu himself was turning against de Gaulle. In a newspaper interview published on 18 January 1960, Massu, referring to the President, suggested that so far as he and the majority of officers in positions of command were concerned, they "...would not execute unconditionally the orders of the head of state."26
De Gaulle instantly recalled Massu from Algiers and reassigned him to be the garrison commander at Metz. This prompted 'Barricades Week', a period in which the FNF attempted to overthrow the civilian administration in Algeria. With the Fifth Republic in jeopardy of collapse, de Gaulle appealed to the nation in his uniform of brigadier-general on 29 January. He ordered the army not to associate with the insurgents and to re-establish law and order.27

The stalemate with the GPRA continued, until November 1960, when de Gaulle announced: "Having taken the leadership of France again, I have ... decided in her name to follow a new course. This course leads ... to an ... emancipated Algeria, ... an Algeria which, if the Algerians so desire - and I think this is the case - will have its own Government, its institutions and its laws."28 A referendum was announced which asked the French population whether or not independence should be granted to Algeria once peace had been restored. The vote on 8 January 1961 returned an endorsement of the plan of 75 percent in France and 70 percent in Algeria.29

It was vital for de Gaulle to maintain the confidence of the army until the end of the war. This was done so with a more vigorous pursuit of the rebels, increased participation of the Muslim population in the political and economic life of Algeria, and guarantees that the Europeans and Muslims co-operating with France would be protected.30
The course of events was going the wrong way for retired Generals Challe, Salan, Jouhaud and Zeller. They had been recruited by a group of integrationist colonels to lead a coup against de Gaulle. Troops supporting the rebels seized control of Algiers and arrested the representatives of the Government on 22 April 1961. The response of de Gaulle was swift and decisive. He activated Article 16 of the constitution, which grants the President emergency powers, and he made a broadcast to the nation. A second broadcast on 23 April reached French conscripts in Algeria - de Gaulle ordered all troops to remain loyal and oppose the four generals.31 The troops remained loyal to the Government, and the attempted coup ground to a halt.

Negotiations with the GPRA finally began at Evian in May 1961. De Gaulle was on the back foot, however, because of his repeated declarations to the French public to reach an agreement as soon as possible. As a result, the demand for a cease-fire before the start of negotiations had to be dropped, together with the demand to negotiate only with the FLN, and the demand that the Sahara would not be part of the new nation.32
The negotiations were slow, and continued on and off until 19 March 1962, when a settlement was finally reached. For the French, the most important parts of the settlement were the guarantees written into the accords protecting the European minority in an independent Algeria.

De Gaulle presented the settlement to France for approval in April. The result in the referendum was overwhelming. 90 percent of the electorate voted to approve the accords.33
De Gaulle was successful in resolving the third greatest crisis for France in the twentieth century (the other two being the World Wars). He was successful because he chose to back his policies with popular support. Such support was needed for the passage of the constitution, which established the framework for dealing with Algeria; democratic reforms in Algeria itself indicated how greatly de Gaulle valued the democratic process; the referendum of January 1961 gave the President the mandate to seek a settlement that would go against the settlers and the army; and the popular support for the President among the conscripts saved the Fifth Republic in April 1961. There was also a degree of 'realpolitik' employed by de Gaulle in his actions - especially with the broadcast to the troops, the support of whom was entirely necessary. De Gaulle saved France from civil war and military dictatorship - therefore it is right to consider him as one of the finest statesmen of the twentieth century.


1. Edgar O'Ballance, "The Algerian Insurrection 1954-1962", London, 1967, p.42.
2. James F. McMillan, "Twentieth Century France: Politics and Society 1898-1991", London,1992, p.161.
3. Herbert Tint, "French Foreign Policy since the Second World War", London, 1972, p.192.
4. ibid.
5. O'Ballance, p.29.
6. ibid., p.27.
7. ibid., p.38.
8. Robert Gildea, "France Since 1945", Oxford, 1996, p.240.
9. McMillan, p.162.
10. O'Ballance, p.83.
11. Andrew Shennan, "De Gaulle", London, 1993, p.79.
12. Charles Williams, "The Last Great Frenchman", London, 1993, p.406.
13. Tint, p.195.
14. Gildea, p.45.
15. Edward A. Kolodziej, "French International Policy Under de Gaulle and Pompidou: The Politics of Grandeur", London, 1974, p.447.
16. ibid., p.448.
17. Shennan, p.93.
18. Kolodziej, p.457.
19. Shennan, p.94.
20. Kolodziej, p.457.
21. Williams, p.397.
22. O'Ballance, p.133.
23. Williams, p.400.
24. Kolodziej, p.458.
25. Shennan, p.97.
26. Williams, p.401.
27. ibid., p.402.
28. Kolodziej, p.460.
29. ibid.
30. ibid.
31. Shennan, p.103.
32. ibid.
33. 33. Kolodziej, p.462.

Gildea, Robert, "France Since 1945", Oxford, 1996.
Kolodziej, Edward A., "French International Policy Under de Gaulle and Pompidou: The Politics of Grandeur", London, 1974.
McMillan, James F., "Twentieth Century France: Politics and Society 1898-1991", London,1992.
O'Ballance, Edgar, "The Algerian Insurrection 1954-1962", London, 1967.
Shennan, Andrew, "De Gaulle", London, 1993.
Tint, Herbert, "French Foreign Policy since the Second World War", London, 1972.
Williams, Charles, "The Last Great Frenchman", London, 1993.
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